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by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | July 6, 2010

Aqua BluWhile most U.S. hotel companies have been busy planting and expanding their brand flags overseas, Minneapolis-based Carlson Hotels is focused on the reverse commute — bringing its swanky Radisson Blu to home soil.

Yes, the Radisson brand has been an American staple for years. In fact, the first one, named for French explorer Pierre Radisson, opened in Minneapolis in 1909. But Radisson Blu (formerly Radisson SAS), already 200 strong globally and long enjoying household-name status across Europe, is an unknown here. That will change in fall 2011 with the opening of the $125 million, 334-room Radisson Blu Aqua in the new 81-story mixed-use development tower near Chicago's Millennium Park.

Over coffee, Thorsten Kirschke, Carlson’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, outlined his company’s ambitious plans for taking Radisson Blu national, one major gateway city at a time. "For Blu to be a truly global brand within the Radisson name, it must have a U.S. presence," said Kirschke. "Now is the time to make that happen. I think It will compete directly with Westin."

Don't expect to see them popping up like daisies across the already littered hotel landscape, though. While Carlson has committed $700 million to Blu’s American expansion, it plans to open only five by 2015. "This brand will be very destination-driven and primarily new-build. It definitely will not grow through franchising," Kirschke noted. Cities being considered to fly the flag include Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

And Blu's defining characteristics? How about a 1.5-mile running track, an upscale Italian eatery, stylishly cool guest rooms, killer service and mega meeting space — like the 27,000 square feet at the flagship Chicago property? Meetings business is a "core component of the Blu label," said Kirschke. The next five years will tell if U.S. meeting planners agree.